FLINT, Mich. (AP/WOOD) — Gov. Rick Snyder is standing by two state leaders that were among the six people charged Wednesday in connection to the Flint water probe.
Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, former City of Flint Water Department Manager Howard Croft, as well as Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Drinking Water Chief Liane Shekter-Smith and Water Supervisor Stephen Busch are charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection to the December 2015 death of 85-year-old Robert Skidmore of Mt. Morris.
The attorney general’s office says Skidmore died of Legionnaires’ disease during an outbreak officials failed to notify the public about. That outbreak happened after Flint switched from Detroit’s water to the Flint River.
Schuette also charged Lyon with misconduct of office, and MDHHS Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells with lying to a peace officer and obstruction of justice.
“Dr. Wells vehemently denies the charges,” defense attorney Jerry Lax said.
Schuette said the charges against Wells are related to an alleged attempt to stop an investigation into the health crisis in Flint and later misleading investigators as to her actions.
Shortly after the charges were announced, Snyder issued the following statement:
“Nick Lyon has been a strong leader at the Department of Health and Human Services for the past several years and remains completely committed to Flint’s recovery. Director Lyon and Dr. Eden Wells, like every other person who has been charged with a crime by Bill Schuette, are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Some state employees were charged over a year ago and have been suspended from work since that time. They still have not had their day in court. That is not justice for Flint nor for those who have been charged. Director Lyon and Dr. Wells have been and continue to be instrumental in Flint’s recovery. They have my full faith and confidence, and will remain on duty at DHHS.”
>>Inside woodtv.com: Complete coverage of the Flint water crisis
Flint began using water from the Flint River in 2014 but didn’t treat it to reduce corrosion. Lead from old plumbing leached into the water system.
Some experts also have linked the water to Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia caused by bacteria that thrive in warm water and infect the lungs. People can get sick if they inhale mist or vapor, typically from cooling systems.
There were nearly 100 cases in the Flint area, including 12 deaths, in 2014 and 2015.
Lyon was personally briefed in January 2015 but “took no action to alert the public of a deadly” outbreak until nearly a year later, special agent Jeff Seipenko said Wednesday.
Lyon has admitted that he was aware of Legionnaires’ for months but wanted to wait until investigators in the Health and Human Services Department finished their own probe.
He told state lawmakers that experts likely wanted to “solve the problem” before they raised it with senior officials in the Snyder administration. The investigation, he said, “wasn’t one that was easily solved.”
FLINT SENATOR: SNYDER’S RESPONSE ‘VERY TONE DEAF’
The reaction in Lansing to a cabinet level administration official being charged with such a serious offense brought some swift and pointed public reaction.
To be sure, it was an interesting day in Lansing. A day that saw the most serious and far reaching charges so far in the Flint Water Crisis.
Charges that land directly at the feet of the Snyder administration.
After Attorney General Bill Schuette’s announcement, the governor’s office wasted no time issuing a unusually sternly worded statement defend at least two of his team members saying in part:
“Nick Lyon has been a strong leader at the Department of Health and Human Services for the past several years and remains completely committed to Flint’s recovery. Director Lyon and Dr. Eden Wells, like every other person who has been charged with a crime by Bill Schuette, are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The statement also said the two would stay on duty.
A notion that did not set well with Flint Sen. Jim Ananich.
“To be the most concerned about protecting an employee over the protection of the citizens were harmed and the department whose job it is to protect the majority of citizens of this state I found very tone deaf and completely the wrong approach,” the Flint democrat said.
Ananich also questioned keeping Lyon, particularly as head of HHS.
“I think that’s probably the question I’m most concerned about, whether or not he has the ability with these pretty serious charges hanging over his head. As you said, innocent until proven guilty, but obviously these are very serious charges and whether or not he has the ability to continue to lead that department is a question that I have and I think the governor should have as well,” Ananich said.
Privately, a number of Lansing insiders expressed surprise that such a serious charge would be leveled at such a high level administration official.
Lansing being Lansing, there were also a few questioning the potential political overtones of Wednesday’s announcement as well.
THE FLINT WATER CRISIS AS IT STANDS NOW
Flint’s water has improved, but residents will be using bottled water or faucet filters until January 2020, which is the deadline to replace the pipes to their 18,000 homes.
Schuette first announced criminal charges related to the lead water issues plaguing Flint in April 2016. At that time, three people were charged: Stephen Bush and Michael Prysby of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and Michael Glasgow, who ran the Flint water treatment plant in 2014.
Three months later, Schuette announced 18 more criminal charges against six current and former employees from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Human Services.
In December 2016, Schuette announced charges against four more people in connection to the contaminated Flint water system, including former emergency managers Earley and Gerald Ambrose.
In May of this year, Schuette dropped a misdemeanor charge against Mike Glasgow.